I sent the manuscript to a few presses and contests each year after I completed my MFA in 2008. The manuscript wasn’t ready to be a book that first year, or even the second, but increasing its readership in this way helped me think about what it meant for the individual poems to become a book as I continued to revise them. I gradually cut and added poems, clarified the language, and re-ordered areas of the manuscript between 2008 and 2011.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Tongue Lyre? Did it go through any other changes?
Initially, the manuscript was called Tongue. Jon Tribble suggested that I might think about adding a second word to the title: we were phone conferencing about edits and brainstorming possibilities, and “lyre” was the winner. (One of the poems in the book is called “Cleaning Out the Lyre.”)
It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?
When I first began sending out the manuscript that became Tongue Lyre, I didn’t know all that much about the publishing industry for poetry. I sent individual poems out to journals that my university library had in their periodicals room, and I read calls for submissions in the Writer’s Chronicle for contests. I learned as I read, and I researched presses that published books I enjoyed spending time with. But I wasn’t as hooked into “the scene” as many MFA students seem to be now. I didn’t know about many other ways of having a first manuscript picked up other than through a prize, since most of the publisher’s calls for first books that I was seeing at the time were linked with first-book contests.
What advice would I give poets sending out their book now?
I’ve recently screened poetry manuscripts for a national prize, and it has been interesting being on the other side of the table. It made me think of the post-MFA me, and the manuscript I was circulating a bit too early at the time. I suppose on the one hand, I want to tell poets to send their book to as many places as possible. But on the other hand, I would also advise poets to ask themselves: “Is this manuscript really ready to be a book, or do I just really want it to be one?” Many of the manuscripts I screened were interesting and demonstrated a lot of skill, but as a whole, they weren’t coming together as a book quite yet. There is no prescription for when a book “is finished”: each book is different. But I would advise poets not to spend money on the contest fee unless they absolutely, honestly believe the manuscript is ready to be a book. That means making sure that on your end you have done all you can to make the manuscript read as a finished whole. I would also say that while Facebook can be a great way to connect with people and learn about news, I would warn poets not to let it trap them into rushing their work. Social networks can be great, but they can also exert a pressure to produce, as though you have to keep up. It’s important to look inward not get swept up in it.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
Countless, obsessive revisions. I mean that. I lost count. Tongue Lyre builds off the structure of the Odyssey, which is a frame narrative. It drove me crazy—a good kind of crazy—figuring out how to incorporate that structure into the arc of my book. I re-arranged the poems many, many times. And the individual poems? Some have been through 40 revisions. Some many more. I have boxes of old notebooks and papers, and I recycled some of the preliminary hard copies of the manuscript recently because I just can’t hold onto all of that paper anymore.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
The press did a beautiful job with the book. I suggested some cover images, and some were suggested to me, and the designer did an amazing thing with the image we decided on.
What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?
Poets should stop worrying about this. It seems like there’s a mentality that once all the poems are taken, the book is “done.” Even if every single poem in a manuscript is published, that does not mean that a poet’s book is finished—no matter where all these poems have been taken. Think of a book like a giant poem. Ask yourself, “What does my giant poem want to be? How is it holding together, as a giant poem?”
How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?
My first inclination after Tongue Lyre was taken was to re-do the whole thing. I actually ripped the manuscript apart and spent an entire weekend rewriting it. The result? A terrible, terrible draft. I never sent that version to the press (I doubt they would have accepted it). I think that because I felt like a younger artist-“me” was behind the earliest drafts of some of the poems, I thought I had to make the project match the artist-“me” that answered the phone the day Jon called me with the wonderful news. But both “me’s” are not all that different, I’ve come to realize.
I ended up tweaking minor things in the manuscript before sending it to Jon, and then Jon and I talked about a range of edits to the poems that made a huge difference, but that were akin to taking a tiny brush to a painting to clean off the surface rather than soaking a rag in turpentine and wiping the canvas down with it.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
It was surreal. And amazing. I was very happy: I couldn’t believe it existed. But it was also a little weird, seeing a box of reproductions of the thing that I felt like I made only one of.
If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”
I would say it is a book-length sequence that gives voice to the myth of Philomela, whose tongue was cut from her mouth after she was raped. But it is also a book about representation in art and music that was deeply influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses. (An Odyssey series of poems threads throughout the book.)
What have you been doing to promote Tongue Lyre, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve been reading from it a fair bit, in Chicago where I live (at Danny’s and the Dollhouse, for instance) and also in other cities and towns (the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD; the AWP Bookfair in Boston, MA; the Stadler Center in Lewisburg, PA; Bates College in Lewiston, ME; the Monsters of Poetry Reading Series in Madison, WI; the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN; the Women Write Resistance AWP Off-Site in Seattle, WA; the Split This Rock festival in Washington, DC, among others). Each reading is very different. The audience brings its own energy to the space. It doesn’t matter if two people show up or if the room is full: I try to think about how I can make the poems come to life for the people in the room each time I read.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Not to worry so much before giving a reading. I can get pretty anxious about it the day of. And also that things like this—this interview—take time. Once the book is in the world, a lot more of your time will be dedicated to talking about it in a public way. It’s energizing, and an honor. But it does take time.
Are there any new writing projects in the works?
I’m working on my next manuscript right now. I don’t want to say anything more about it at the moment and risk jinxing it. The manuscript is similar to Tongue Lyre in some ways, but in others it is very, very different.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes. When I’m 85, I might be able to start answering this question...
Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press 2013). Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, The Believer, Poetry, and Boston Review, and her essays have appeared or is forthcoming in The Robert Frost Review and The Writer's Chronicle. She has been the recipeient of work-study scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Vermont Studio Center, and she is editor-in-chief of The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought. She lives in Chicago, where she is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.